Run, Don’t Swipe to this Exhibit, “A Brilliant Spectrum,” SBMA
Most people with even a passing interest in color photography have studied one of William Eggleston’s photographs since he first presented his work in 1976 in his tideshifting solo show at the MoMA. Eggleston introduced viewers to an inordinate sense of balance in color and composition, accomplished so seemingly simply by framing an everyday scene, where more often than not, nothing is happening—except, that is, for the tickle of delight that can make the viewer’s nose twitch. And so it is, that the untitled photograph by Eggleston that anchors Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s exhibit, “A Brilliant Spectrum: Recent Gifts of Color Photography,” evokes nostalgia for America’s less cluttered landscape of the sixties, not to mention visual culture before everyone had a camera and publishing platform in their pocket.
The exhibit, lining the perimeter of a large open hall, is an antidote to Instagram, slightly underwhelming the senses and leaving plenty of room for the intellect to breathe. Curated by Charlie Wylie, “A Brilliant Spectrum” moves swiftly through 30 works from the past 50 years, demonstrating the broad range of techniques and themes that have emerged in color photography since the ‘60s and ‘70s. On view for the first time, the selected works also hint at the inner workings of the acquisition process for the museum’s permanent collection, perhaps where the museum’s curatorial vision is headed. It’s an uplifting consideration of contemporary art, Eggleston in dialogue with experimental abstractions by Susan Rankaitis, conceptual practices of Olaf Breuning and technological interventions of George Legrady.
“The only thing one can do is really look at the damn things,” Eggleston said in 2016 to Augusten Burroughs, writer for the New York Times.* “It’s just not making much sense to talk about them.” That might be true, but it’s easier to explain why the red, white and blue of a static pick-up truck and Exxon logo sweetly sums up a sense of Americana stored in the collective memory, than the meaningfulness of Hannah Karsen’s series of photographs of book covers, “a number of times.” The “what” of the book covers requires no explanation, but the “why,” the “who cares,” takes time to absorb and collect, like the traces of dust, wear and human sediment that they register—the whole of human history written in those books they once covered, and the hole in the human condition they embrace when they’re empty.
“A Brilliant Spectrum” can be talked about or not, but it should definitely be looked at.
“A Brilliant Spectrum: Recent Gifts of Color Photography” is on view January 27 to May 5, 2019 at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1130 State Street.